BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Todorov’s (1984) The Conquest Of America: The Question Of The Other

24 May 2013

Summary

While “othering” people (places, and things) generates problematic patterns of power in reward-oriented, patriarchal cultures, the contrary movement of (ostensibly) “de-othering” people as (abstract) “human beings” equally poses a problem—we may see this most obviously in the way that supposedly race-blind policies enable more recent articulations of structural racism, but the most widespread example of this involves de-Othering “women” as “human beings”.

Pre-Disclaimer

Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, that’s part of the problem to be solved.

A Reaction To: Todorov’s (1984)[1]The Conquest Of America: The Question Of The Other

I took a number of notes while reading this book due to the many significant junctures and insights Todorov makes, though most of those seem less necessary to explore here.[2] As one quick example, exemplary in the merely made-in-passing quality of the comment: “one does not let the other live merely by leaving him intact” (250).[3] Whether Todorov intends this or not, I take this as pointing to how merely to not inflict suffering on another does not constitute a condition of another person “living”. By suffering, per Susan Parenti, I mean that which threatens the intactness of one’s being. So then, humans “live” in more than merely maintaining their intactness, intactness being most immediately threatened by violence to one’s physical, cognitive, socioeconomic, or relational being. In this context, Todorov’s citation of a twelfth-century monk Hugh of St. Victor takes on a particular resonance, even were he not to append his parenthetical aside to it.

[Hugh of St. Victor wrote:] “The man who finds his country sweet is only a raw beginner; the man for whom each country is as his own is already strong; but only the man for whom the whole world is as a foreign country is perfect” (I myself, a Bulgarian living in France, borrow this quotation from Edward Said, a Palestinian living in the United States, who himself found it in Erich Auerbach, a German exiled in Turkey.)[4]

At another point, Todorov provides a deft summary of two of his main analytical categories, sacrifice societies (the Mesoamerican) and massacre societies (the conquistador’s):

On yet another level, our recent experiences are discouraging: the desire to transcend the individualism of egalitarian societies and to accede to the sociality characteristic of hierarchical societies reappears, along with others, in totalitarian states. … These [egalitarian and totalitarian] states, certainly modern in that they cannot be identified either with sacrifice societies or with massacre societies, nonetheless unite certain features of both, and deserve the creation of a portmanteau word: they are massacrifice societies. As in sacrifice societies, a state religion is professed; as in massacre societies, behavior is based on the … principle of “everything is permitted.” As in  sacrifice, killing is performed first of all on home ground; as in a massacre, the very existence of such killing is dissimulated and denied. As in a sacrifice, the victims are chosen individually; as in a massacre, they are exterminated without any notion of ritual. The third term exists, but it is worse than the preceding two; what is to be done? (253)

Considering the general scope of the book and all that a reader might tease out of it,[5] it may seem at first (to you) small-minded on my part to object  to Todorov’s dedication; he begins by citing a passage from Diego de Landa’s Relación de Las Cosas de Yucatán (below) with an added comment:

The captain Alonso López de Vila, brother-in-law of the adelantado Montejo, captured, during the war in Bacalán, a young Indian woman of lovely and gracious appearance. She had promised her husband, fearful lest they should kill him in the war, not to have relations with any other man but him, and so no persuasion was sufficient to prevent her from taking her own life to avoid being defiled by another man, and because of this they had her thrown to the dogs.

I dedicate this book to the memory of a Mayan woman devoured by dogs.

This immediately reminds me of Alan Moore’s (1999)[6] dedication in From Hell to the women killed by Jack the Ripper.[7] What makes such (white male?) outrage suspect in these cases involves the whiff of exploitation that attaches to the use of such imagery. Moore and Todorov, writers I both generally admire,[8] would seem, might seem, should seem above such things but we shouldn’t, might not, even cannot assume it.[9]

In Todorov’s case, to his credit, he returns at the end of his book to the subject of his dedication.

A Mayan woman is devoured by dogs. Her story, reduced to a few lines, concentrates one of the extreme version of the relation to the other. Her husband, of whom she is the “internal other,” already leaves her no possibility of asserting herself as a free subject: fearing to be killed in war, he seeks to ward off the danger by depriving the woman of her will [and giving her to a Spaniard]; but war will not be only an affair among men: even when her husband is dead, the wife must continue to belong to him. When the Spanish conquistador appears, this woman is no more than the site where the desires and wills of two men meet. To kill men, to rape women: these are at once proof that  man wields power and his reward. The wife chooses to obey her husband and the rules of her own society; she puts all that remains of her personal will into defending the violence of which she has been the object. But, in fact, a cultural exteriority will determine the outcome of this little drama: she is not raped, as a Spanish woman might have been in time of war; she is thrown to the dogs because she is both an unconsenting woman and an Indian woman. Never was the fate of the other more tragic (247).

A major purpose of Todorov’s project, which this maximally tragic circumstance illustrates, concerns “that we remember what can happen if we do not succeed in discovering the other” (247). In this respect, Todorov takes the episode as only a starting point and this adds that whiff of exploitation discernible in Moore’s book on similar grounds. Nor does a fiction (on Moore’s part) versus nonfiction (on Todorov’s part) further exculpate or exacerbate either author in some way since both have provided hybrid documents: Todorov’s work, by design, represents an exemplary history, i.e., a moral history, while Moore’s avowed fiction (like much great fiction) manages to say more that seems true than much nonfiction.

I do not aspire or see a need to hoist Todorov by his own petard about this, i.e., to dismantle his arguments on the very grounds he uses to dismantle the discourses he analyzes; one might indulge in this, but Todorov belies sufficient self-reflexivity to see it coming and doesn’t attempt to shy away from it, if one even could. He says, “I prefer to assume my vision of events openly, without disguising it as a description of events themselves. Doing so, I choose in the present circumstances the elements that seem to me most characteristic” (246). In contrasting what he calls systematic discourse and narrative discourse:

In European civilization, logos has conquered mythos; or rather, instead of polymorphous discourse, two homogeneous genres have prevailed: science and everything related to it derive from systematic discourse, while literature and its avatars practice narrative discourse” (250).

For this illustration and for Todorov’s point, one may simply note he has provided a distinction (between systematic and narrative discourse) without needing to know exactly what that consists of. For my own point, his book—precisely as an exemplary history—programmatically and methodologically disavows the (false) conceit of the adequacy or sufficiency of systematic narrative when one undertakes something like history. Thus, his empirical approach to texts (borrowing from the systematic approach) combines—or more properly, dialogues—also with an axiological or moral analysis (borrowing from narrative discourse) to form his exemplary history (of the conquest of America). He provides a phrase for this himself: “to rediscover, within a single text, the complementarity of narrative discourse and systematic discourse” (253).

Thus, when he admits, “I prefer to assume my vision of events openly, without disguising it as a description of events themselves” (246), this not only admits the only possible state of affairs for human beings, but also (subtly) critiques the conceit, and epistemological habit that we all and not just academicians indulge frequently, of disguising our vision of events as a description of events themselves.  Immediately, one might discern that Todorov’s very method—this dialogic complementarity of text and interpretation[10]—itself illustrates a controlled and special case (in the mathematical sense) of the question of the Other generally, the confrontation with the Other: an example similar to the sort of cultural hybridity exhibited by (the historian) Durán and the complexities involved in (the historian) Sahagún’s efforts to allow the Other to be present, even as they represented it (in both the Nahuatl and Spanish portions of their work).

With these credits to Todorov’s approach and self-reflexivity acknowledged, I return to his dedication and reprise of it in his epilogue.  Shortly following this reprise, he says, “At the same time that [Western civilization] was tending to obliterate the strangeness of the external other, [it] found an interior other“ (248):

From the classical age to the end of romanticism (i.e., down to our own day), writers and moralists have continued to discover that the person is not one—or is even nothing—that Je est un autre [“I is another”], or simple echo chamber, a hall of mirrors. We no longer believe in wild men in the forests, but we have discovered the beast in man, “that mysterious thing in the soul, which seems to acknowledge no human jurisdiction but in spite of the individual’s own innocent self, will still dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts” (Melville, Pierre, IV, 2). The instauration [the restoration or rebuilding] of the unconscious can be considered as the culminating point of this discovery of the other in oneself (248–9).

No doubt, and Jung would heartily agree, but I can hardly miss the likely accidental chauvinism that “we have discovered the beast in man” (249, emphasis added), i.e., man understood as a generalization of men. Todorov’s inspired dedication arises from beastliness by two men toward a woman, who Todorov asserts “is no more than the site where the desires and wills of two men meet” (247); Todorov provides this framing and description, not either of the two men involved. The point I wish to make here concerns this shift of emphasis from the (historical or cultural problem of the) external other to the (historical and cultural problem of an) internal other framed in terms of all human beings even though the historical evidence examined by Todorov focuses overwhelmingly and essentially exclusively on men.[11]

Todorov, whether through the lens of Bakhtin (1981)[12] directly or indirectly, practices and so invites a scrupulous and close reading of texts. I want to return to his above paragraph, then, but with an eye to the neglected or underemphasized feminist issue that might have more deeply informed his analysis generally, that would have reframed to some extent the conclusions and future steps we might take that he draws, and that also would have removed the whiff of exploitation involved in his use of the example in the first place. Here again, then, his paragraph to refresh our memories:

A Mayan woman is devoured by dogs. Her story, reduced to a few lines, concentrates one of the extreme version of the relation to the other. Her husband, of whom she is the “internal other,” already leaves her no possibility of asserting herself as a free subject: fearing to be killed in war, he seeks to ward off the danger by depriving the woman of her will [and giving her to a Spaniard]; but war will not be only an affair among men: even when her husband is dead, the wife must continue to belong to him. When the Spanish conquistador appears, this woman is no more than the site where the desires and wills of two men meet. To kill men, to rape women: these are at once proof that  man wields power and his reward. The wife chooses to obey her husband and the rules of her own society; she puts all that remains of her personal will into defending the violence of which she has been the object. But, in fact, a cultural exteriority will determine the outcome of this little drama: she is not raped, as a Spanish woman might have been in time of war; she is thrown to the dogs because she is both an unconsenting woman and an Indian woman. Never was the fate of the other more tragic (247).

Let me begin immediately by acknowledging the sentence: “Her husband, of whom she is the ‘internal other,’ already leaves her no possibility of asserting herself as a free subject” (247). On the one hand, we might take this precisely as an acknowledgment of Woman as the always already Other of the two patriarchal cultures that encounter one another in Todorov’s book. We might take this as at least a signal of a self-conscious “feministness” aware of and in the text.

However, strictly speaking, we may plausibly take Todorov to mean ‘internal other’ in the sense he cites above: as “the beast in man, ‘that mysterious thing in the soul, which seems to acknowledge no human jurisdiction but in spite of the individual’s own innocent self, will still dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts’ (Melville, Pierre, IV, 2)”.

It might seem slightly perverse to so literally paste Todorov’s “definition” of the ‘internal other’ to his use of it in this passage, yet all of the analogies line up exactly: woman—as well as child and “native”—all (in colonizing and patriarchal discourse) have emotionality, beastliness, freshness and spontaneity, and so forth imputed to them when cast in a Noble Savage kind of vein; in Taoism, this manifests in the contrast of yang (male) and yin (female);[13] and in Jungian psychology it manifests in descriptions of the anima (as the complementary female part of the male psyche) and its opposite half, the animus. This particular sense of the anima as the ‘internal other’ of men recommends reading Todorov’s passage in this way. Similarly, had Jung simply once and unambiguously said: by this description of anima, I mean how men see women, not how women actually are; so that Todorov’s admission and implied critique, “I prefer to assume my vision of events openly, without disguising it as a description of events themselves” (246, emphasis added) gets similarly reinforced and remembered.

These aren’t the only examples and, in any case, we may add this contextualizing remark ourselves to Jung—as also to Berger’s (1972)[14] Ways of Seeing, who seems to go even more berserk with generalizations about the existential condition of women—if with an end to saying that women constitute the ‘internal other’ within patriarchal culture. Lerner’s (1986)[15] Creation of Patriarchy insists upon this: that men discovered first how to enslave women and then proceeded to apply that technology to other Others. I would say, rather, that the original and prior technological articulation of slavery involved that of children by adults (not women by men), evidence for which (besides an arguable logical necessity) we see in how patriarchy labels women as child-like rather than labeling children as womanish.

But whoever got enslaved first, it seems Todorov does not mean ‘internal other’ in this patriarchal sense even as he details the masculinist lines of power at play in the rape narrative he recounts. To trace what Todorov does mean more exactly through his discourse, we may begin with the first sentence, “A Mayan woman is devoured by dogs,” which makes the woman the patient, rather than the agent, of the action. (NOTE: in a passive grammatical construction, the patient describes the person or thing that undergoes the action or has its state changed, as opposed to the agent of an active grammatical construction, as the person or thing that performs an action.)

Because we have a translation of Todorov’s text  (from French), it becomes perilous to make too much about the passive construction of Todorov’s sentence (“A Mayan woman is devoured by dogs”); the “fault” may lie with Richard Howard (the translator). But my point in any case does not concern ad hominem attacks on the author or translator; Foucault (in an overstatement) insists that discourse speaks us, not that we speak discourse, so that we may simply have a case of language trumping intention. All of this being said, nevertheless the appearance of this sentence in passive form highlights a possible construction of the subject of this narrative.

Todorov’s approach to his texts, undergirded by Bakhtin’s (1981) description of discourse, illuminates how we might hear the voice of the Other even in representations of them; Bakhtin (1981) insists relentlessly that texts do not simply happen, but represent what he calls images of language, which themselves never wholly escape determination by prevailing discourses. So, even in the simplest utterance we might find already multiple traces of multiple voices, which insight Todorov uses in his analysis of the texts he encounters.

So when we read, “Her husband, of whom she is the ‘internal other,’ already leaves her no possibility of asserting herself as a free subject: fearing to be killed in war, he seeks to ward off the danger by depriving the woman of her will,” we do not confront at all the two men, but a very vine-overgrown archaeological site of multi-layered representations. In Diego de Landa’s text, which Todorov cites, a captain “captured … a young Indian woman of lovely and gracious appearance. She had promised her husband, fearful lest they should kill him in the war, not to have relations with any other man but him” (qtd. In Todorov, ii). Notice how the phrase “fearing to be killed in war” in Todorov’s reprise echoes but also recontextualizes de land’s text, where the woman (in de Landa’s representation) inserts the fear “lest they should kill [her husband] in the war.” Allowing the multiple levels of representation here, we see again how the woman’s initiative (her fear) gets shifted to the husband: “fearing to be killed in war, he seeks to ward off the danger”.

I have no intention or desire to project Todorov as some kind of card-carrying misogynist who at every turn desires to strip women of their agency nor to insist on reading into his text some sort of unconscious patronizing. One may say simply on the basis of rhetoric that making the woman of the dedication into a purely helpless victim serves the affective purposes of the passage. Elsewhere, Todorov remarks on Las Casas’ immense sympathy for the Mesoamericans, to the point that Las Casas’ access to knowledge about them (as Todorov demonstrates) becomes affected and diminished. I hardly doubt Todorov’s sympathy for this (anonymous) woman stands as anything but genuine; he declares, without irony, “Never was the fate of the other more tragic”  (247). And through that lens, Todorov’s own sympathy may have similarly shifted the emphasis in the story to bring out the affect of her plight. To say this imputes an at most partial culpability to Todorov (for writing it this way). We encounter language and discourse in language itself as an Other, and so it practices its exactions upon us if and when we become lax in attention, which happens frequently enough to be the rule. Language offers certain defaults of expression that we “resort to” (i.e., we take them up), and with those resorts come everything implied by them, whether we want them or not. In this sense, Foucault’s overgeneralization (“we don’t speak discourse; discourse speaks us”) has merit. More accurately, we might say that all utterances already propose a site—not unlike the one Todorov constructs for the woman—as a site where the wills and desires of two [discourses] meet; a site where the encounter with that Other may play out in a hostile, violent, or suppressive way (in either direction, from the writer to language, or from language to the writer) or in a more dialogic, complementary, and productive way.

Todorov continues: “he seeks to ward off the danger by depriving the woman of her will [and giving her to a Spaniard]; but war will not be only an affair among men: even when her husband is dead, the wife must continue to belong to him. When the Spanish conquistador appears, this woman is no more than the site where the desires and wills of two men meet. To kill men, to rape women: these are at once proof that man wields power and his reward.” On the one hand, Todorov describes fairly the patriarchal bind that the woman finds herself in, but we needn’t lose track of the fact for that reason that Todorov did not have to construct the text this way.

Only because Todorov makes this woman the dedication for his book do I suggest that he might have “done more.” The text he cites ties his hands in the sense that it offers the only (second-hand) window to the event described. The “inhumanity” and awfulness of the event in de Landa that he himself provides no mitigation for already begins to point clearly and loudly to the essential problem at work. We have no reason to believe that the original story reported to de Landa didn’t come with mean-spirited laughter at the “joke” of the whole thing. Todorov’s sense of pity for the woman may provide the only sort of “comment” he (Todorov) felt was appropriate—here, we see some arrogant conquistadors who probably have more to say about the dogs in question than the woman and laughing to themselves as a human being gets torn to pieces and eaten alive. Nonetheless, in writing from the standpoint of his admirable sympathy for this woman’s fate, Todorov’s sense of pity in a way effectively writes her out of the picture as an agent—hence, the “fear” that originates with her in de Landa’s text gets shifted to her husband in Todorov’s reprise.

I dwelt on this at length, in part to set up what follows, because Todorov next writes, “The wife chooses to obey her husband and the rules of her own society; she puts all that remains of her personal will into defending the violence of which she has been the object” (247).

To put it perhaps too bluntly, one readily reads victim-blaming out of this. The overstatement in Todorov hinges on the phrase “chooses to obey”; we may wonder how much choice she had, and we needn’t imagine (as Todorov may or may not have) that the outward act of obedience conforms to an inner assent to the events. In a patriarchal setting, this description may hold as accurately reflecting the patriarchal structure: the wife’s choices (note that she she stands already under the label “wife”) consist of submitting gracefully or by force. We needn’t impute to Todorov any naiveté about her circumstance, but if we decide to read (Todorov’s use of) the phrase “chooses to obey” as simply an adequate representation of the circumstance as it got framed at the time by the two men and the patriarchal culture in which the event transpired), then that “she puts all that remains of her personal will into defending the violence of which she has been the object” injects a note of judgment on Todorov’s part (or the narrative he constructs). One might read from this that the woman has become somewhat stupid—at the very least has “chosen” to act against her best interests—although again perhaps Todorov resorts to such language to drive up the awfulness of her circumstance. We might propose that Todorov could have written, “She becomes obliged by circumstances to appear at least to put all that remains of her personal will into defending or assenting to the violence of which she has been the object, and will be”.[16]

However, even here the agency ascribed to the woman—whether that agency seems problematic, ill-informed, or stupid—gets negated in the next (and most overtly) problematic sentence: “But, in fact, a cultural exteriority will determine the outcome of this little drama” (247). Immediately, the tone of “this little drama” intrudes loudly. A charitable reading suggests that as Todorov more and more closely approaches the actual moment when a real human being shall get thrown to dogs and savagely killed and eaten, he seeks to distance himself (emotionally) and so indulges a touch of irony. One may make a similar argument on rhetorical grounds: that as the (gruesome) climax approaches, either to avoid too much shrillness or as a deflating kind of gesture to set up the horror all the more, such a resort to a little irony accomplishes the aim of conveying horror all the more. It also certainly creates a major block for defending Todorov’s sympathy. If, precisely at the woman’s worst moment, Todorov turns his attention to the rhetorical effect of his story, this belies the exploitative whiff discerned earlier; in the moment of her death and torture, she gets converted into an example.

In point of fact, she has already become an example—both as a dedication in Todorov’s book and in de Landa’s story, for whatever reason he related it. And if Todorov backs away from her circumstance for emotional reasons, this still points to the grounding of his sympathy even if it (inadvertently) underscores any apparent lack of aversion about other facts of the woman’s life she has already “endured” (as a “wife” in a patriarchal culture; as the “mere site” of the desires and wills of two men, &c). But the phrase “this little drama” does not convey the only part of the tone here; the first part of the phrase, “But, in fact, a cultural exteriority will determine the outcome” also has a note of distancing to it as well. “Cultural exteriority” has an academic ring to it that the surrounding text more or less lacks; and this “academic moment” gets delivered along with a “more knowing” point of view that declares, quite apart from whatever the occupants of “this little drama” believe, a cultural exteriority “in fact” will determine the outcome (not the people involved).

Having established this academic and factual authority, the meaning of the event gets told to us bluntly: “she is not raped, as a Spanish woman might have been in time of war; she is thrown to the dogs because she is both an unconsenting woman and an Indian woman” (247). This, again, utilizes a “normal” tone of voice, so to speak, and we may still find an intriguing element in the fact that the woman doubles, splits in half: “she is both an unconsenting woman and an Indian woman”. As almost an aside, the word “unconsenting” jars here because the woman has been described already as obeying; she has (at the very least) made a show of consenting. Moreover, the essential association between rape and consent makes the word “unconsenting” reflect almost unavoidably back to the “rape” (that she does not experience, or would have experienced had she been a Spanish woman). One almost might say the “text” misrecognizes the woman for a moment (as a Spanish woman) and then “corrects” itself to recognize her as an Indian woman, subsequently thrown to the dogs.

My attempt to tease out some possible strangeness in Todorov’s discourse here goes to an an apparent and underlying “failure” (I need to put that in quotation marks) to discern Woman as Other here in contrast to that other as “the beast in man” (248), so that a crucial project of modernity as Todorov describes it involves the “instauration [the restoration or rebuilding] of the unconscious” (248–9). Certainly, Todorov ends his description, “Never was the fate of the other more tragic” (248), but which Other? I suggest that Todorov himself wavers on this point—the Other does not come clearly into view here, doubling (as when things go out of focus) as the unconsenting Spanish woman who would have been raped and the Indian woman actually thrown to the dogs. One may ask, without imputing anything to Todorov (and remembering that we have a translation of his text before us) why she splits into an unconsenting woman and an Indian woman, as if “unconsenting Indian woman” has somehow been disallowed in the text.

I must say, not in passing: the kind of close reading I attempt here has nothing of deconstruction about it, but rather Bakhtin’s dialogics, which Todorov has favorably written of and which, I imagine, he would not object to having turned on his text. The point of such an analysis has nothing to do with proving the hidden, secret meaning of a text–the (or “a”) real message buried in a discourse, but rather to illuminate how multiple confluences of discourse collide and clash, interpenetrate and inhibit one another in discursive and literary work. To think I prove–or would want to prove–Todorov as some secret misogynist amounts to nothing better than a grotesque misreading. All of us, misogynist or feminist alike, stand challenged by how discourse operates; like trying to hold back the sea, we can only do so much in any given place. The tensions we see in Todorov’s text more fruitfully belong to discourse, language, and text, rather than to any judgment on him. Ad hominem judgments have their place, but only where they take place.

Returning to Todorov’s text, one might want to read a certain rhetorical flourish or emphasis here, that adding meat to the phrase “she is both an unconsenting woman and an Indian woman” simply doubles the crime against her since she represents not only this but also that. Possibly. But simply in this doubling itself, it makes the referent of “Never was the fate of the other more tragic” ambiguous; is the tragic fate a consequence of being unconsenting or Indian or both, &c? Notice then how the question becomes whether it is “unconsenting” or “Indian” (or both) that comes to the fire and no longer the “woman”. Adjectives may often have this unintentional effect: an “unjust war” implies the possibility of a just war; the phrase “legitimate rape” implies that we might deems some kinds of rape “illegitimate”. So by splitting the woman here into one who both does not consent and comes of an Indian descent, this elides to some extent her person as a woman.

Of course, whether Todorov intends this or not, the tragedy of the Other precisely involves the nonrecognition of the Other as person (Indian, woman, &c)—but in the calculus of sorrows, whatever nonrecognition these days befalls human beings generally or Indians in particular, certainly one of the most widely encountered and daily variety of nonrecognition of the Other involves precisely the misprision in patriarchal terms of “man” as “human being” (and so “woman” as not human being). Feminist critique often fundamentally begins by reminding our patriarchal discourse (even as female-bodied people participate in it) that the equation of “man” and “mankind” insists on an incoherent premise.

So one may ask again who Todorov means, which Other he means, when he says, “Never was the fate of the other more tragic” (247). Earlier, Todorov noted, “If it is incontestable that the prejudice of superiority is an obstacle in the road to knowledge, we must also admit that the prejudice of equality is a still greater one, for it consists in identifying the other purely and simply with one’s own ‘ego ideal’ (or with oneself)” (165). We may discern then in the collapse of “woman” into “human being”, i.e., of the Other in a generic sense, an equalizing gesture that illustrates how such a prejudice of equality can hinder the generation of knowledge.

In one of his earliest works, Todorov (1974)[17] identified the genre of the “fantastic” as having a fragile and perilous life between two adjacent genres,[18] fragile and perilous because the experience of hesitation or uncertainty of meaning that a reader ideally experiences when reading the fantastic very easily and readily lapses into one of the certainties afforded the genres near the fantastic (i.e., the uncanny and the marvelous). It seems as if Todorov (albeit on a very brief scale) experiences this kind of hesitation or uncertainty when the woman in the narrative he provides suddenly splits into both “an unconsenting woman” and “an Indian woman” simultaneously. I suggest that we may read this splitting as not between “unconsenting” and “Indian” but simply more bluntly between “woman” and “Indian” (or human being generally). This momentarily numinous perception, this unsettlingly surreal moment of truly confronting Otherness on Todorov’s part, doesn’t last for long, and (like the experience of the genre of the fantastic itself) soon collapses into one of the certainties of the adjacent terms, in this case the designation “human being,” to whom no greater tragedy has ever occurred.

Between “superiority” and “equality” (as Todorov describes them above), or in a parallel between “difference” and “similarity”, these analytical categories (and others Todorov proposes, like “presence” and “absence” or “sacrifice cultures” and “massacre cultures”) function like the certainties of adjacent categories (like uncanny and marvelous) in contrast to the uncertainty and hesitancy one experiences in other presences (like the fantastic), simply the Other. In this particular case, Todorov has come down on the side of equality and similarity, so that the Other disappears into the category of “human being”—and thus erases the fact of the woman as a woman. This seems motivated by the same kind of generosity Todorov imputes to Las Casas, who similarly found the generation of his knowledge hindered by his prejudice of equality.[19]

The difficulty of sustaining the balancing act (on the tightrope of uncertainty and hesitation) provides some mitigation and further insight into the problems Todorov addresses. When we imagine this balancing act as a tightrope walk, then two major images come to mind: the walk has a delimited beginning and end; second, we watch it.

We can explore this more by (again) considering what Todorov has to say about the genre of the fantastic. He notes how most writers (composers) resolve the ends of their fantastic works in one or the other of the adjacent genres (the uncanny or the marvelous). Meanwhile, the either/or the reader has been hesitant or uncertain about deciding upon (i.e., whether the work represents a case of the uncanny or the marvelous) has sustained the tension or interest throughout the story but finally comes down to one or the other (the uncanny or the marvelous) ultimately. Or, in contrast to this, one may arrive at the end of the story without having arrived at a clear answer to this either/or–in this case, the author sustains the genre of the fantastic.As such, while a fantastic story necessarily has a delimited beginning and an ending (i.e., it starts at some point and ends at some point), this does not condemn us the reader to inevitably falling off of the uncertainty of the narrative tightrope into the certainty of one of the adjacent genres (i.e., the uncanny or the marvelous).

In a similar way, we may observe how a person can feel unable to determine: male or female? Instead of answering that question in one way or another (i.e., the “adjacent genres” of “male” or “female”), we may simply not answer the question and persist in the hesitancy and uncertainty. More precisely, we may note that when we do insist on answering the question (or getting an answer to the question), we do so generally for erotic reasons—not sexual, but erotic, i.e., because we actually desire that events might fall out in a certain way (or not). So, we may thus understand any resolution to our hesitancy or uncertainty as originating—for good or bad—in our desires. This may devolve to utterly trivial details: in a literary work, we might wonder if the ghost actually exists or that someone cooked up a hoax. Wobble as we might in our opinion—this points to a crucial feature of the fantastic as well–nonetheless, as we wobble across the tightrope in the presence of the fantastic, we do not keep both sides perfectly in view; rather we lean one way, then the other, making adjustments along the way so as not to fall off (or the writer gives us details that allow us to wobble in that way).

Almost by definition, then, the Other places us in a position analogous to, if not identical to, the fantastic. With no luxury of being only on one side or another, we find ourselves invited to hover—perhaps uncomfortably—between two options, and our desires drive whether we come down on this side, or that side, or somehow manage not to come down at all. Importantly, the image of “falling off” (as something involuntary, that we do not will) characterizes this situation. To continue with the erotic example, if I see someone androgynous, I might find myself hard pressed to ignore any wishful thinking on my part that transforms that androgyny into “male” but in any number of other circumstances, to “fall off” the tightrope—that we go over onto one side or the other—seems something less often willed than not. The culpability for our desires seems to get the better of us, all the more so when the Other gets blamed for “making” us feel and react as we do. The gravity of the situation (literal and figurative) seems to blame; we made a genuine good-faith effort to stay on the wire, but a lack of skill or talent got taken advantage of “by gravity,” and down we go.

In Todorov’s insistence on “no greater tragedy,” confronted by the Other (i.e., the “human” or “woman”), these terms have specific, hierarchical senses in a patriarchal culture. Resolving the tension of the Other (as “woman” or “human”) in such a patriarchal setting theoretically makes “human” the kinder choice, but it obviously remains highly problematic. Although patriarchy blames Women for the disaster of everything, “human beings” (i.e., “men”) remain the people trying to make a purse out of that sow’s ear and only wind up making it worse. Resolving the tension of Other in favor of “human being” then makes one culpable for the disaster as a perpetrator, not merely the original source of the mess (Woman), who now gets kept pushed away from Power as much as possible to avoid any reprise of the original disaster. &c. Consequently, the de-Othering of Woman into the category of “human being”  in the name of equality pales the violence done to the people of Mesoamerica on numerical grounds and provides a mainstay for the ostensibly kinder, equality-based de-Othering of other Others as well (non-white, non-straight, non-male, &c).

Thus, Todorov’s book in its useful pointing to the question of the Other with respect to a confrontation between “race” and “race” (or culture and culture) finds its inspiration in the same type of pitfall, one that not only accepts an already (patriarchal) narrative about the fate of a woman (de Landa’s), but reproduces the problematic aspects of it in the well-intentioned mode of a prejudice of equality instead. We may cheer for this error since it shows the leverage point where we might apply Todorov’s own kind of analysis to our present day and not just rest content that the “bad old days” of conquest no longer prevail (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine, &c, notwithstanding of course).

Endnotes

[1] Todorov, T. (1998). The conquest of America: the question of the other (trans. Richard Howard). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, i–xiii, 1–274.

[2] Here you may have my entire review of this book: read it. Now, back to my reaction to it.

[3] The whole phrase actually reads, “one does not let the other live merely by leaving him intact, any more than by obliterating his voice entirely” (250–1).

[4] As an adopted child, exiled to life in the United States, I includes Todorov’s additional remark:

[5] Again, my basic review of this book runs: read it yourself.

[6] Moore, A, Campbell, E., and Mullins, P (1999). From Hell (collected edition). Marietta, GA: Top Shelf.

[7] This doesn’t propose to question of Moore’s (or the illustrator Campbell’s) negative capability in their ability to depict such murders in such detail or not, nor Todorov’s ability to chew up the image of Columbus in particular so extensively, but simply the offhandedness of this gesture—because in both cases it seems to have such negligible consequences for both texts—though this applies more to Moore’s text than Todorov’s as my further remarks (above) illustrate. In the case of From Hell, Moore declares that the dead women provide the only definitive certainty in Ripperology, yet precisely this certainty (and not wholly without some sympathy) provides the basis for Moore’s knowingly fictional certainty, which for being so knowingly certain probably has a greater ring of truth than much Ripperology. Similarly here, Todorov from time to time punctuates his text with graphic details that burst any tidy academic or idealized vision of that rascal Columbus’s shenanigans in Mesoamerica; one episode especially concerns an Indian woman.

[8] I’ve read Moore’s (1987) Watchmen and (1989) V for vendetta, and Todorov’s (1970) The fantastic: a structural approach to a literary genre and (1981) Introduction to poetics

[9] In Moore’s case, the larger project of his book seems ultimately to take the slaughter of women as an incidental part of the fantasia on history he constructs.

[10] One may come to suspect, and eventually suspect as gratified, an unacknowledged debt to Bakhtin in no small portion of Todorov’s analytical approach in the chapters he devotes particularly to the discourse embedded in Durán’s and Sahagún’s texts. At one point, Todorov uses the word “interpenetration”—a word legion in Bakhtin’s work, and eventually at one point refers to “a new exotopy (to speak in Bakhtine’s fashion), an affirmation of the other’s exteriority which goes hand in hand with the recognition of the other as subject. Here perhaps Is not only a new way of experience alterity, but also a characteristic feature of our time, as individualism (or autotelism) was for the period whose end we are now beginning to discern” (250).

[11] The historical (female) figure of La Malinche, who functions arguably as a notably notorious comprador intellectual, does not provide an exception. Patriarchy does not completely denigrate Woman; it subordinates the needs and values of females to the needs and values of men, most especially in terms of access to offspring and sexual gratification. In this respect, women may and have occupied positions of power within patriarchal cultures but their relation to power remains contested and conflicted. Patriarchy acknowledges the numinous—hence fascinating and dangerous—power of Woman in figures like Medusa, so this means that women may play that card even, of course, as it comes with the risk of Perseus’ threat of decapitation. Whatever historical actuality La Malinche occupied, the narrative now surrounding her seems half-domesticated Medusa—half wholly desirable seductress—and half-wild Sacajawea. Canetti might call her a survivor.

[12] Bakhtin, MM (1981). The dialogic imagination: four essays (ed. And trans. M. Holquist and C. Emerson). Austin: University of Texas Press.

[13] Yin and yang unambiguously provide complementary terms, but whether the values and elements ascribed to yin get placed on an equal footing with yang remains uncertain. In Western redactions of Taoism, unsurprisingly, the valuation tends to privilege yang (the male). My dogged nose for subtle verities of symbolic sexism makes me want to point out that though yang (the masculine) gets privileged over yin (the female), nevertheless this patriarchal evaluation neglected to reverse the terms; i.e., we regularly encounter this as yin-yang, which literally puts woman first and thus tacitly acknowledges a (likely historical) precedent prior to the reorganization of cultures along male-oriented (patriarchal) values.

[14] Berger, J. (1972). Ways of seeing. New York: Penguin

[15] See Lerner, G (1986). The creation of patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press.

[16] I say this without wholly forgetting that Todorov sees the event through a reported story in a related text.

[17] Todorov, T. (1993). The fantastic: a structural approach to a literary genre (trans. Richard Howard). Ithaca: NY: Cornell University Press.

[18] The specificities of these side genres does not come into play here.

[19] Saying this does not argue for the preferablenss of the prejudice of superiority because it stands less in the way of the construction of knowledge. Todorov doesn’t quite manage to say this, seeing in the conquistadors’ (especially Cortés’) ability to improvise, to generate alternative categories, as a major reason for the success of the conquest. But I can only consider this a tension in Todorov’s book; the conquest being the most thoroughgoing genocide in history, the “success” of the innovation bears criticism, as in fact most of Todorov’s book aspires to. But having declared, “this worked,” this makes it difficult, at best, to “convince anyone” that the cost of it working stands far greater than anyone should ever pay. Todorov also seems to largely not address the question of “what knowledge” got produced by this more knowledge-generating prejudice of superiority. Stating this this way makes it seem Todorov missed a major point. Not really. He acknowledges that noting the success of a technology needn’t read as approbation for it, and yet …

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